Is Baidu already dead, and other stories

Access Archive

Dear reader,

Top stories today

  • The U.S. Navy sailed a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait, the fourth time it has announced such an operation since last summer.

  • Baidu is under fire from an influential writer for rigged search results.

  • China is looking warily at the turmoil in Venezuela — Beijing has a lot of money at risk.

A correction that reminds me of old Soviet jokes

In our newsletter yesterday, I linked to John Garnaut’s piece, My friend, the writer who ‘disappeared,’ about the apparent detention of writer, blogger, and former Chinese foreign ministry official with Australian citizenship Yáng Héngjūn 杨恒均.

A correction: Garnaut wrote that essay in 2011, the previous time Yang was nabbed by the authorities. It’s like some old joke from the Soviet Union. (Thanks to William White for pointing out my error.)

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has now admitted to detaining Yang, an Australian citizen, on the grounds that he was “endangering national security.” Other reports:

Chinese New Year gifts

Need some low-key bling for the Year of the Pig? Check out our Spring Festival selection on our Shop, including cute piggy gel pens for only $2.50 apiece.

—Jeremy Goldkorn and team

1. Trade war, day 203: U.S. Navy sails through Taiwan Strait  

There is no big news from the trade war, the fight over Huawei, and related tensions, but many updates as always. Here are the main developments:

U.S. vs. China

  • “The U.S. Navy sent the destroyer USS McCampbell and replenishment oiler USNS Walter S. Diehl through the Taiwan Strait Thursday,” according to the South China Morning Post. This was “the fourth time the Navy has publicly admitted to sending surface combatants through the closely watched strait since the US restarted the practice last summer.”

  • “The Communist Party wrapped up a four-day study session on risk controls on Thursday, an event analysts said underlined the leadership’s deep concern about growing external volatility and uncertainty amid its high-stakes trade war with the United States,” reports the SCMP.

  • “Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said Thursday that the U.S. and China are still ‘miles and miles’ away from reaching an agreement in their ongoing trade dispute,” says The Hill.

Huawei CFO in Canada

  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “is dismissing calls to remove Canada’s ambassador to China from his post, saying such a change wouldn’t help two Canadians detained by Chinese authorities get home sooner,” reports the Canadian Press. This comes after the ambassador suggested ways that Huawei CFO Mèng Wǎnzhōu 孟晚舟 might avoid being extradited to the U.S.

  • Meng apparently has a “public service” passport of which the Star Vancouver has details: How Meng Wanzhou’s ‘P’ passport works.

  • “Any countries and forces that persecute Chinese citizens and infringe on China’s interests will pay a heavy price,” warns nationalist rag the Global Times in a piece titled Prepare for protracted game over Meng.

Huawei worries around the globe

  • “Authorities in Taiwan are drafting a list of Chinese technology companies that could present security concerns for the government, in the wake of a series of measures excluding Huawei from bidding on the next generation of 5G mobile network infrastructure,” reports Radio Free Asia.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

2. Is Baidu already dead?

Search engine Baidu has fully embraced fake news. This is according to the latest argument from a growing group of influential writers on the Chinese internet who are calling out Baidu’s business practices.

Yesterday, Fāng Kěchéng 方可成, a veteran political journalist, published a scathing critique of the company on his Weibo account, titled “Search engine Baidu is already dead” (in Chinese). The article gives many examples of how Baidu manipulates its search results in favor of low-quality articles published on its own blogging platform, Baijiahao, which is rampant with misinformation, rumors, and outright lies.

One example cited by Fang is a bombshell piece of news forwarded by his friend, which reports that the CIA has issued a posthumous apology in light of new evidence that proves Osama bin Laden was not involved in plotting the 9/11 attacks. Posted on Baijiahao, the news is a translation of a piece published by the Onion, the American parody news website. The translation did not mention the source or give any context, so a number of readers, like Fang’s friend, believed it was real news.

“Baidu wasn’t like this one year ago. It was far from this 10 years ago. Though it had various problems back then, it still fulfilled its basic responsibilities as a search engine. It served as people’s entry point to the Chinese internet,” Fang wrote. “But now, it’s more of a sitewide search engine for Baijiahao.”

For more, please click through to SupChina.

—Jiayun Feng

3. China and turmoil in Venezuela

The South China Morning Post reports:

China voiced support for the increasingly isolated Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday as the Latin American country plunged deeper into turmoil over a diplomatic showdown with the United States.

As oil-rich Venezuela’s main ally and creditor, China faces a dilemma — caught between backing Maduro and not taking sides — as it weighs the implications of a growing social and political crisis on its multibillion-dollar investment.

For background, see SupChina’s ongoing series on China-Venezuela relations:

4. Mixed signals from Dr. M

Mahathir Mohamad, or “Dr. M,” as the Malay Mail calls him — prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003, and now again since 2017 — continues to send mixed signals about China. The Malay Mail reports:

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahat today said he does not know if the Chinese contractor for the China-backed East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project had been terminated.

“I don’t know. I just got back from overseas,” Dr. Mahathir told reporters here when asked for verification.

“The way to handle it is to stop the contract, but if we stop the contract, we have to pay billions in compensation,” the PM added.

Government adviser Tun Daim Zainuddin said on Tuesday that Malaysia was still in negotiations with China over the ECRL project.


Our whole team really appreciates your support as Access members. Please chat with us on our Slack channel or contact me anytime at

—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief


  • Bing search engine blocked then unblocked?
    Bing is back online in China (for now) / That’s Guangzhou
    “Bing is back online in the Chinese mainland as of 10.30pm CST. The Microsoft-operated search engine was inaccessible for roughly the past 24 hours, with internet users across China reporting the site was no longer loading.”

  • Genetic engineering
    China clones gene-edited monkeys to aid disorder research / AFP
    “Chinese scientists announced Thursday (Jan 24) they had cloned five monkeys from a single animal that was genetically engineered to have a sleep disorder, saying it could aid research into human psychological problems.”

  • Chipmakers report weak demand in China
    Chip results augur more tech gloom as slowing China weighs / Reuters
    “Chinese woes led to South Korea’s SK Hynix turning in its first quarterly profit decline in two years,” while Texas Instruments “said demand in China was weaker than other regions, especially for smartphones, including demand from Chinese smartphone makers.”

  • Alibaba — movie financing
    Huayi Brothers takes a $103 million loan from Alibaba Pictures / China Film Insider
    “On January 24th, Alibaba Pictures announced that its affiliated company Beijing Asian Union Culture and Media Investment Ltd. would make a five-year loan of 700 million yuan ($103 million) to Huayi Brothers.”


  • Soft power — foreign students
    Why China is lavishing money on foreign students / The Economist (porous paywall)
    “In countries such as Britain, Australia and America, foreign students are welcomed mostly because universities can make more money out of them than out of locals,” says the Economist. “The rich world is selling education. China is using it to buy influence.” Some numbers:

    • There are nearly half a million foreign students in China, of whom around half are on degree programs.

    • China says it devotes 10,000 of its scholarships for international students to those from Belt and Road countries.

    • The Ministry of Education last year “budgeted 3.3 billion yuan” ($0.49 billion) for international students last year.

    • There are more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world.  

  • Is a green Belt and Road possible?
    Can solar diplomacy green the Belt and Road? / Chinadialogue
    China’s Belt and Road Initiative “is not delivering on its promises of green and low carbon infrastructure so the initiative is facing a crisis of legitimacy,” however, “experience from China’s own solar sector could help it deliver a sustainable transition in Belt and Road countries,” writes Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

  • Taiwan: We do not see eye to eye with China   
    ‘One country, two systems’ not right for Taiwan: poll / Taipei Times
    “A majority of people in Hong Kong believe China’s ‘one country, two systems’ model is not applicable to Taiwan, a survey released on Tuesday by the University of Hong Kong found.”
    Taiwan unveils new drone as China tensions mount / AFP
    “Taiwan’s navy showed off its latest long-range surveillance drone on Thursday, January 24, as the island’s outgunned armed forces push to counter China’s increasingly muscular rhetoric and military exercises.”

  • Debtor shaming by WeChat
    Is someone in debt nearby? Chinese court uses chat app to alert people as part of social credit system / SCMP
    “The ‘Laolai Map’ — lǎolài 老赖 is a derogatory term for people who fail to pay back money — was announced by the Hebei Higher People’s Court last week. Developed by the court, the map can be found on a WeChat mini-program — a tiny application that runs on WeChat’s interface.
    It pinpoints the user’s location and scans a radius of 500 meters (550 yards) for any laolai, including individuals, company employees and other organizations. The public can share the information as WeChat moments or with friends.”



Huawei’s problem of being too ‘Chinese’

Huawei, much like China, has succeeded because it has been willing to go to lengths, and make sacrifices, that others have not. But as Huawei — and China — has grown to become a leader in the Asia-Pacific region, the methods that got the company there have been called into question. This is a story about how China’s biggest telecom company can attribute much of its success — and most of its setbacks — to how stubbornly “Chinese” it remains, even amid rising demands for it to comform to Western standards.

China Business Corner: ByteDance takes aim at WeChat with Duoshan, a Snapchat-like video app

ByteDance’s new app is Duoshan (多闪), literally “multi-flash,” a video app that functions a lot like Snapchat. The product was developed with a cool $75 billion valuation behind it, leading many to ask whether it might make a dent in WeChat’s market share. Also in this week’s China Business Corner: Drone maker DJI finds itself in a bribery scandal, and ecommerce platform Pinduoduo loses millions due to a technical glitch.


Sinica Podcast: The U.S. and China: Cold War, or hot air?

This week on Sinica, Kaiser and Jeremy chat with Ali Wyne, a policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, about the big picture in U.S.-China relations. Are we already in a cold war? Wyne gives a spirited argument that we’re not — and makes the case that the interconnectedness between China and the U.S. can still serve as effective ballast in the relationship.

Ta for Ta: Episode 13: Libby Lam

This week, Juliana visited Libby Lam, a mother and children’s book author and illustrator, at her alma mater, the Savannah College of Art and Design in Hong Kong. She took the time to discuss her dramatic career switch and share more about her professional philosophy. We learn how her time in the corporate world at PepsiCo and the Walt Disney Company influenced her, why she decided to write in English instead of Chinese, and why she made the decision to go back to school.



Skewer time

A group of skateboarders wait in line for the shaokao (烧烤 shāokǎo), or kebab skewers, to be handed out at a local skate club in Shandong Province. Photo by Daniel Hinks.